School segregation is a frequent topic of discussion in U.S. education policy debates, and rightfully so (Orfield et al. 2014). The segregation of schools by race, ethnicity and income both reflects and perpetuates inequitable opportunities in the U.S. (e.g., Reardon and Bischoff 2011a; Kaufman and Rosenbaum 1992).
Needless to say, school segregation, within and between districts, is primarily a function of residential segregation – the spatial isolation of individuals and families by characteristics such as race, ethnicity, income, language, education, etc. There are several different ways to measure segregation, since it can be gauged by different traits (e.g., income, ethnicity), and at different levels – e.g., state, county, city, neighborhood, etc. The choices of variables can have a substantial impact on the conclusions one draws about segregation's levels and trends (Reardon and Owens 2014). One generalization, though, is in order: In the U.S., we have tended to gravitate toward “our own kind,” whether in terms of income or race and ethnicity. This disquieting reality is neither accidental nor mostly the result of individual preferences. In addition to the obvious historical causes (e.g., Jim Crow), segregation arises and is perpetuated by a complex mix of (often institutionalized) factors, such as the spatial patterning of housing costs, density zoning, “steering,” “redlining,” overt discrimination, etc. (e.g., Ondrich et al. 2002). And, finally, there is the stark fact that the nation's poor have very few choices in terms of housing and neighborhood, and many of those choices they do have are bad ones.
That said, it bears keeping in mind that the majority of families and individuals in America do indeed have the means to make meaningful choices about where and how they live, and even those who desire to live in an integrated neighborhood also weigh many other, meaningful factors – such as housing costs, convenience to stores and transportation, crime rates, schooling options, and so on. There is some evidence of progress in residential (e.g., Ellen et al. 2012) and school integration (e.g., Stroub and Richards 2013) by race and ethnicity, but increasing segregation by income (e.g., Reardon and Bischoff 2011b) Nevertheless, on the whole, integration tends to be unstable, while segregation tends to be more persistent.